Craig earning his stripes with Union

Brandan Craig became the youngest captain and goal scorer this year for the Philadelphia Union. PHOTO: PHILADELPHIA UNION

Brandan Craig immediately texted his family the good news.

It took them a few minutes to see it.

Craig is a star soccer player who is playing for the Philadelphia Union II team, and immediately after being told he was going to be the captain for a game, the youngest member of his team took a picture of his jersey, posted it on social media, and then sent it to his family.

He didn’t get the immediate reaction he expected, but it wasn’t because his family, all soccer fanatics, wasn’t excited.

“I texted them a screenshot of my post, and they didn’t notice (the stripes on the jersey),” said Craig, who became the youngest captain in program history on Sept. 3. “I’m not sure why they thought I sent it to them. Then my dad wrote back, ‘You’re going to be the captain?’ Then they were excited. But at first, they didn’t notice, so it was kind of funny. But I know they’re very proud.”

Proud would be an understatement.

The Morrell Park 16-year-old phenom is the youngest player on the youngest team in the league. And Craig, a defender, is playing against some of the best soccer players in the country, and he’s more than holding his own.

Playing against guys who are as old as twice his age, Craig is leading the youngest team in its division, so games are challenging. The opponents are bigger, stronger and faster. But instead of worrying about that, Craig is doing whatever he can to compete and make himself a better soccer player.

“We’re the youngest team, but some teams have guys that are 30 or 32 years old, so they’re bigger and stronger,” Craig said. “It makes me better. Everything on the ball has to be quicker. Very rarely are you beating them physically. You have to think better, make decisions quicker. That’s all you can do. You have to think quicker and make better passes. It’s what we all have to do because we’re a really young team.

“It’s crazy. Just to play against guys that are 32, 30 years old. It’s crazy but it’s a good experience. We’re a really young team, an inexperienced team playing and learning. Especially when you play teams like Pittsburgh and Hartford, they have an average age of 30 and we are an average age of 17, so it’s really tough for us. But it’s a learning experience.”

Craig wants to be challenged.

He’s in his sixth year playing for the Union, but he’s new to playing against men. Prior to this, he played for the Union Academy, where all of the players were his age. Still, he doesn’t look out of place playing with the top guys, and just as he was as the captain, he recently became the youngest player to score a goal for the Union II.

“It’s a great thing, just like being a captain, it’s a great accomplishment that I’ll always have on my soccer resume and I’ll cherish it for the rest of my life and it will stay with me for the rest of my life,” Craig said. “At the same time, it will be broken, and I’ll be happy when it is. We are getting younger and younger. The Union are doing a great job of finding great young players and hopefully someone younger scores or is named captain. That’s what we all want.”

Craig ultimately hopes to someday play the highest level possible, which will be competing in Europe. But for the last five years, he’s been learning from the Union.

He attends the academy for school, and he’s been with the team since 2015. It’s put him on track to be exactly where he wants to be at 16.

“It’s great to get the feel of the professional game, without a doubt it’s helping me a lot,” Craig said. “I love everything about the Union. We have such a great coaching staff, my teammates, the facilities, everything is first class. It’s treated like a European Academy, that’s where all the soccer players want to be, and the Union want to be developing the best. It’s a stepping stone to playing there, but it couldn’t be better. Everything is first class.”

It’s taken him way beyond his Morrell Park home, too.

While playing for the Union, Craig has played virtually all over the world. He’s played throughout the United States, but also took trips to places like Brazil, Qatar, Croatia and London to compete against the best players in the world.

He loved the experience, not just because it’s great soccer but he’s doing things most people only dream of.

“I don’t do a lot of sightseeing, but there have been cool places where I did a little,” Craig said. “Qatar was different, I had never been to the Middle East, and Croatia was fun. It was nice to see a place that was so rural. It was very different than I’m used to.”

But everywhere he goes is a business trip, and he’s on pace to live his dream of playing at the highest level possible.

It’s been a lot of work, and has taken a lot of support from his family and coaches, but Craig sees all of the effort paying off. And he’s ready for whatever happens next.

“I want to be humble in everything I do, but I definitely want to keep getting better,” Craig said. “I keep striving to be a better player. I haven’t come close to making it yet. Day in and day out, I’m working. I’m nowhere close to where I want to be, but things are going well.

“I don’t have a goal I need to reach, I just need to get better.”

It’s hard to get Craig to talk about his accomplishments, but he did do a little humble bragging. He couldn’t help it.

He wasn’t talking about anything he did on the soccer field, but he was quick to brag about his 13-year-old brother Andrew.

“If he’s not better than I was at his age, he’s right there and everyone is noticing,” said Craig, whose parents both played soccer at Temple University. “Even my coach. He’s with the Union now, too, and everyone is seeing him do great.

“When he was younger, I would beat him when we’d play 1 v. 1, and he would always want a rematch. We’d play again, and I’d win. He would keep playing until he won. He wouldn’t stop. He is so competitive and he’s a great player. He’s special.”

But he’s still earning his stripes.

Just like big brother.